When I was planning my visit to Yellowstone, I was pretty overwhelmed. It’s such a huge place with so much to see. Complicating the matter was the fact that I hadn’t visited any national parks for a long time and wasn’t even sure what I would do when I got there. I had so many question. But I figured everything out just fine when I got there. Here’s my answers to some of my biggest questions.
How will I get there?
Take a road trip, or fly! Just get yourself to one of Yellowstone’s “gateway communities.” If you’re driving from the West, there’s West Yellowstone, MT. From the North is Gardiner, MT. From the South is Jackson Hole, WY, which is more of a gateway to Grand Tetons National Park. I drove from the East, and had the choice of Cody, WY or Red Lodge, MN. Cody is the more direct route coming from I-90. It’s a big town that has everything you could possible need. The most direct drive into to park goes through the Shoshone National Forrest, and is quite scenic. Coming from Cody is a good choice due to the convenience of a big town, and the interesting drive into the park.
There are two more choices if coming from the East. Staying on I-90 takes you north to the big town of Billings, MT. From here you can proceed on Route 212 to the small town of Red Lodge, MT where you can access the spectacular Beartooth Highway. This is one of the most scenic drives in America, and it goes right up into the mountains. Driving this road is an attraction in and of itself. Some people even leave the park just to drive it. I though the detour was well worth it. Read about my experience here.
The final choice from the East is to take 296, the Chief Joseph Highway, from Cody, instead of going straight in on Route 14. It takes you up into the mountains and is scenic, but not quite as scenic as the Beartooth. Route 14 doesn’t go up into the mountains, but I think I liked it better than the Chief Joseph Highway.
How much time should I spend there?
Ahh, the impossible to answer question! I had to plan an itinerary of 13 national parks in two months, so one of my most difficult tasks was allocating time to each park. I spent a lot of time typing “how much time should I spend in x national park” into Google, which took me to discussions on Trip Adviser. The problems with these discussions is they are talking about the minimum time you need. It’s always better to spend more time.
I spent a week inside Yellowstone, and I felt that was a good introduction to the park. That was enough time to make it to all the major sites. But there were whole areas I never made it to. You could spend two weeks, or even a month. Heck, some people never leave!
The absolute minimum amount of time would probably be three hectic days. The park is so big it’s impossible to avoid spending hours every day just driving around, so more time is better!
Where will I sleep? Should I book all my accommodations in advance?
I like to travel with flexibility, so I always prefer to just show up and figure things out. But Yellowstone is probably the most famous national park in the world. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a campground inside the park. And I highly recommend staying inside the park to keep driving times down.
What worked for me was to book my first night in advance, then wing it from there. There are several campgrounds throughout the park. Some allow reservations, and some are first-come first-served. The non-reservable campgrounds tend to be smaller and more intimate than the gigantic reservable ones, but have no amenities.
Having a place to stay reserved for your first night is good. On the second day, get up early and drive to one of the non-reservable campground to find a place. The “sweet spot” time to get there is probably 9 am to noon, but people are leaving and arriving throughout the morning. You can ask a ranger about availability at a visitor center before making a long drive to a campground. Once you find a spot, you can pay for as many nights as you want.
This approach worked well for me, but I was there after Labor Day. During the summer it might be harder to find a place inside the park, but there should always be somewhere to stay in the surrounding national forests and gateway towns. Rangers can help recommend alternative accommodations. If you’re visiting in the summer and know your dates, booking all nights in advance may be better than just showing up. Canyon is a good reservable campground with lots of amenities.
Some people don’t like to camp. For those who like luxury, there are lodges inside the park. These are limited, expensive, and fill up fast, so book as far in advance as you can! I never stayed in one of these, but I heard there are sometimes last-minute cancellations.
How will I get around?
The sad reality of most of our national parks is that there are too many roads and you need to drive your own car. Everybody is driving, so there are traffic jams and huge parking lots. But the flip side is you can go where you want, when you want. The Grand Loop Road is a huge circle all around the park. There’s also a road through the middle, and spokes that go to each of the park entrances.
Driving these roads is a little different than driving outside the park. The speed limit is 45 MPH, so it takes longer than usual to get around. Don’t speed, because it’s to protect wildlife! The trees come right up to the road, and there are no lights at night. It’s possible a gigantic elk could run out in front of you, so be patient.
What will I do?
There’s a lot of driving, stopping at viewpoints, getting out to take pictures, then getting back in the car to drive more. I found that to be tiresome, so I liked to mix in days of hiking. Hiking is a great activity in any national park. Yellowstone has an especially large number of different hikes to try.
The big attractions, like the Old Faithful area, have boardwalks that lead to many interesting things to see. Walking all the boardwalks in these areas takes several hours. Getting to the most popular sites before 10 am or after 5 pm avoids crowds.
Some people like to watch wildlife. Wildlife is most active very early or very late, so your best chance of seeing anything besides bison is to get up early, or stay out late.
Other people like fishing. I saw quite a few people standing in rivers fishing.
Do I need waterproof boots or other special gear?
Don’t buy waterproof boots. I agonized about buying shoes before I left, and I’m glad I didn’t buy waterproof boots. I was there during heavy rains, and I forded icy cold streams. My feet were just fine. Get some sandals for fording streams. As for hiking shoes, lightweight trailrunners will suffice.
A waterproof jacket is necessary in case it rains. A warm puffy jacket or fleece and long underwear are needed, since you’ll be outside all day and it might get cold. For hiking you should have the ten essentials. A headlamp is invaluble.
What should I see?
There’s so much that you won’t see it all on this trip! Old Faithful Geyser Basin, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Mammoth Hot Springs are must-sees. Beyond those, pick what you’re interested in, because Yellowstone has it. Waterfalls, scenic drives, gigantic lakes, mountains, huge plains full of bison, canyons. Yellowstone has it all!
Trips to Yellowstone are often combined with Grand Tetons National Park immediately to the south. Admission is included with Yellowstone. Grand Tetons is totally different from Yellowstone, and deserves at least three more days in addition to a week in Yellowstone. In a pinch you could drive to the highlights in a day, but that doesn’t do this incredible park justice.
Where will I eat?
It’s good to carry a lunch with you, so you can eat anywhere. For dinner I would alternate cooking at my campsite with eating out at the many restaurants. The “villages” have everything from cafeterias to fancy restaurants. The food is mediocre and overpriced, but it’s nice to take a break from pasta. There are grocery stores in the villages selling produce, but they are more expensive than regular grocery stores.
Will my cell phone work? Is there wifi?
Probably not, unless you have Verizon. The fact that I didn’t have service in the overdeveloped strip malls was my biggest complaint. How could the National Park Service create such an ugly mess, but not be bothered to set up a simple wifi network? Why does Verizon have a monopoly on cell phone service?
How much will it cost?
It doesn’t have to cost much. Campgrounds are about $30 a night. Lodges are much more expensive, about $100 or so. Food in the park is expensive, but bringing your own cheap groceries into the park helps keep costs down. An unfortunate unavoidable cost is gas. I was driving about 100 miles every day inside the park. Gas inside the park while I was there was $4 a gallon, a dollar more than outside the park.
Where can I get more information?
The National Park Service website is a good source of information. Upon arrival at every park, the NPS always provides an extremely informative newspaper. It’s always worth pulling over and reading this as soon as possible.
I found the book Yellowstone Treasures by Janet Chapple to be especially helpful. It gives a mile-by-mile description of every road in the park. I read it before I left to get an idea about where I would go. If you have a co-pilot, it would be very useful inside the park too.
For hiking, I found the Falcon Guide Books to be useful for many of the parks I visited. They list all the possible hikes, with step-by-step directions. These books are good for planning which hikes to go on, but they do not replace a good topographical map app on your phone.
Do you have any more questions about visiting Yellowstone National Park?